18 April 2003
U.S. Navy Enlists the Help of Marine Mammals to Secure Iraqi
(Dolphin-secured ports essential for flow of humanitarian aid) (960)
By Kathryn Schmidt
Washington File Special Correspondent
Washington -- The U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program is making a splash
in the Persian Gulf with a unit of dolphins and their handlers who
have taken to the waters off the coast of Iraq. Their mission: to
clear ports of killer mines.
The deployment to Iraq marks the first time the mine-hunting dolphins
have been used in a real-world wartime situation.
Since arriving March 24 at the port of Umm Qasr and several other
locations in Iraq, the dolphin teams have unofficially cleared 913
nautical miles of water, investigating 237 mine-like objects,
recovering 90 mines and destroying 11 more.
"What is significant here is the large areas which the dolphins can
search quickly and report that there are no mines, allowing the search
to proceed without the labor-intensive effort of searching every
square foot of harbor bottom, literally by hand, to determine if mines
are out there," says Tom LaPuzza, Navy public affairs officer for the
Marine Mammal Program at the Space & Naval Warfare Systems Center in
San Diego, California.
Efficiently detecting mines is even more important when there are
thousands of desperately hungry Iraqi citizens waiting for
humanitarian aid, notes LaPuzza. "Without the marine mammal teams,
clearing a lane for a ship, even a narrow [lane], would have taken
many long, careful hours of searching if only [human] divers were
doing the work."
LaPuzza tells of one instance when the Royal Navy ship Sir Galahad,
filled with tons of food for Iraqi citizens, was floating outside the
Iraqi harbor of Um Qasr waiting to make delivery. The marine mammal
teams worked swiftly to clear the harbor channel so the Sir Galahad
could enter and off-load its humanitarian aid.
Using their biological sonar, dolphins went to work, alerting their
human counterparts to anything that looked like a mine while allowing
them to bypass areas where there were no mine-like objects. "In that
fashion," LaPuzza says, "...it took only a matter of hours to clear a
path for the Sir Galahad to get to the pier and unload its food
There is no doubt that clear ports are vital to the flow of aid to the
Iraqi people, and the Navy's marine mammal teams have made this
possible in record time.
"Our troops were going in to free a repressed people from a terrible
dictator," LaPuzza says. "Humanitarian assistance in the form of a
ship full of food [has become] a symbol of the real point of the war,
which was about people and not about who had the most missiles and
Unrivaled by any man-made device, the precise biological sonar of the
mine-hunting Atlantic bottlenose dolphins allows them to locate mines
and clear areas with unparalleled speed and efficiency. "At more than
100 yards distance, in dark, murky water, a dolphin can easily
distinguish between a rock, a small fish, a shark and a discarded boat
motor," notes LaPuzza.
In the shallow water of a harbor like Umm Qasr, there are all kinds of
noises from boats, waves, pier pilings, and other marine life.
Dolphins have the ability to overcome such obstacles of sound
reverberation to locate mines.
Dolphins are not the only marine mammals deployed to the Gulf.
California sea lions have been participating in training exercises off
Bahrain since January, learning to detect and tag enemy divers.
During these "force protection capabilities" exercises, the sea lion
alerts a human member of the team when it has spotted a swimmer or
diver near a pier or a U.S. Navy ship anchored in the harbor. Then the
sea lion attaches a restraining device to the suspicious person and
swims away at speeds of up to 25 miles (40 kilometers) per hour. Human
counterparts can then drag the suspect to the surface.
The Navy uses sea lions extensively to recover practice mines used in
training exercises by Navy divers and dolphins. It is estimated that
these exercises save the Navy and taxpayers more than a million
The U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program began in 1959 to research
hydrodynamics of the dolphin in order to improve torpedo, ship, and
submarine designs. Impressed by the dolphins' ability to learn (their
level of intelligence is thought to rank between smart dogs and
chimpanzees), the Navy began training dolphins, and later, sea lions
to perform underwater tasks.
In 1996, dolphin teams were called up to support waterside security at
the Republican National Convention in San Diego. Earlier, dolphins
were used in Vietnam in 1970 and 1971 to help protect an Army
ammunition pier in Cam Ranh Bay from further attacks by North
In 1987 to 1988 dolphin teams were deployed to Manama Harbor in
Bahrain to protect the Navy's Sixth Fleet flagship, the USS LaSalle,
which was helping direct Kuwaiti tankers through the Strait of Hormuz,
a channel that had been mined by Iraq during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq
Today, LaPuzza says, the program has a budget of $10 million to $20
million annually, with 75 dolphins and 20 sea lions onboard. He says
it takes at least three years to train dolphins in complex behaviors
such as detecting mines.
While the Navy does not discuss future operational deployments,
LaPuzza says, "as a long-term strategy, it is the plan of the Navy to
develop hardware systems that are ... effective enough to replace
For the foreseeable future, however, there is no comparable
replacement for these mine-hunting teams that have played an integral
role in assisting coalition forces, and delivering aid to needy Iraqi
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